Modern Jazz dance has evolved in a way that is nearly unrecognisable from the original form of jazz dancing. The traditional Jazz dances include the lindy hop, charleston, balboa, and vernacular jazz steps. Most are partner dances, and this section will tell you the difference between them
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Lindy Hop (“8 count” and “6 count” rhythms)
Lindy Hop has its roots in the music of the times – Jazz, more specifically Big Band Swing music from the 1920s – 40s, and in Harlem, when it experienced a kind of cultural renaissance in the 1920s. The dance itself a fusion of expressive African solo movements and European partner dancing. It developed when the African slaves imitated European style of partner dancing, which was taboo in African culture.
The dance expressed the spirit of Jazz – vernacular, improvisational, individual expression tempered with negotiation with another, and free spirited – in the context of partner dancing. The improvisational nature of the dance doesn’t mean that there are no rules. Rather, the improvisation happens within a set of basic “8-count” footwork, and within the context of lead and follow, where the leader uses his body and hands to tell his partner where to go, and the follower, through her frame and connection with her partner, understands her leader’s cues. There is also a “6 count” footwork that gets thrown into the mix with it’s own set of moves to complement the movement.
It is ironic as there is no hopping in lindy hop, despite its name, though there is a pulse that is intrinsic to the dance – the swing feel, that sense of propulsion, generated by the music. This usually creates a certain sense of joy in the dancer. It is no wonder that they call it the happy dance. The fact that it is a vernacular dance means that each dancer is free to create his or her own unique style in the expression of the dance.
Here’s a clip with Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, from the original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers talking about the dance, with original footage.
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The Charleston was a popular dance in the 1920s, in the midst of the Prohibition amendment, and often associated with the speakeasy. It was popularized by the song “Charleston” by James P. Johnson, from the Broadway show Running Wild in 1923. Women danced it alone and together, mocking the people who supported the Prohibition, the “drys”. It was considered immoral and provocative by many. The Charleston is one of the root dances that contributed to the development of the Lindy Hop. In fact, it evolved in the 30s and 40s, to suit the change in the style of music, and was incorporated into the Lindy Hop.
The rhythm of the dance itself resembles the natural movement of walking, though you don’t actually move, and there is a bounce in the step. The flexibility and ease of the basic step allows for different forms of styling and improvisation.
Lindy Hoppers today dance both versions of the Charleston, either solo or with a partner. When done solo, they combine it with vernacular jazz steps as well. When danced with a partner, there are many different positions to adopt – side by side, tandem, or in front of each other.
This clip shows Al Minns and Leon James, also from Whiteys Lindy Hoppers doing a demo for a TV recording somtime in the 50s.
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Authentic Jazz Steps
In its original form Jazz dancing has little to do with Bob Fosse and musical theatre, though one can somewhat trace a direct lineage to vernacular jazz. American Authentic Jazz dance in its turn, traces its origins to the customs of early African communities. As such, the dance was social and communal (always with calls and shouts), natural (movements mimic or are based on everyday actions), and earthy (grounded) dance.
The dance was based on the polyphonic rhythms of African music, and evolved together with Jazz when it gained prominence. Because of its emphasis in rhythm and the ground, much of the dance involved leg movement. This did not mean that the upper body was left unmoved. In fact, without the constraints of Victorian morals and codes, the body was free to express itself in movements and angles that were not common to European dances, but highly improvisational and personal.
Today, Vernacular Jazz is seen as an important part of Lindy Hop, not just because they come from the same tradition and express the same kind of music, but Vernacular Jazz dancing is in many ways, the basis of the Lindy Hop, and also finds its way into the partner dance as well as in partnered jazz steps and footwork variations, or during breakaways.
This clip shows The Big Apple, a jazz steps routine, done by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, from The Spirit Moves (1950), a documentary on jazz dancing.
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Many dance historians state that Balboa was a derivation of Foxtrot, others believe it evolved from the Charleston or Collegiate Shag. Willie Desatoff an original Balboa dancer of great distinction believed it evolved from the Rhumba. Danced completely in closed position, pure Balboa evolved in conservative dance halls where space was limited. It is characterised by a fairly upright posture with both partners standing ‘chest to chest’ in close contact. You never break away from your partner, there are no spins or turns, and you remain completely in contact through the chest at all times. The only variations possible were changes in direction and a few step variations. These step variations generally play with the rhythm or change the look and feel (style) from below the knee downwards.
After a while some of the original Balboa dancers tired of doing just pure Balboa and started to introduce fancier variations which forced the ‘chest to chest’ connection to be broken. In this form anything goes; spins, turns, dips, tricks, and even air steps! All these things are allowed provided the overall style, feeling, and framework remain true in spirit to the original dance. In explicit terms it might be said that these open patterns should be combined with recognisable Balboa footwork. There’s some dispute over exactly when this form got its ‘Bal Swing’ name. It is clear though that for some time many people referred to it as just ‘Swing’ dancing.
This is one of the earliest and perhaps only known clip showing some Balboa dancers on Venice Beach in 1940
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Blues dancing is a family of historical dances that developed alongside and were danced to blues music, or the contemporary dances that are danced in that aesthetic… There are ongoing debates within blues dancing and swing dancing culture today about what constitutes “authentic” or “part of the tradition of” blues dancing. Some hold the position that a blues dance that does not possess the stylistic, aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of Africanist dance cannot qualify as blues dance. Others argue that a blues dance which has had very little creative contribution from black dancers or draw from the base of movement they created, does not qualify either. Yet a third position might hold that a blues dance is simply dancing to blues music, regardless of the steps performed or whether they involved partnered or solo steps, or whether the steps and movement are aesthetically tied.
There are dancers, moving to music which is not blues, performing steps which have no Africanist features or historical tradition who call what they do “blues dancing”. There are many variations and positions on these debates about what is and is not blues dancing within the tradition of the original dances among the contemporary dancers
Here’s a clip from The Spirit Moves showing some Blues movements